Every Navrathri, Chitra Ramanathan’s living room is decorated with dolls made by her

A bejewelled Goddess Saraswati sits resplendent, delicately holding the veena, with a white lotus bloom at her feet. She is the latest addition to the collection of handmade dolls crafted by 68-year-old Chitra Ramanathan. And every year during Navrathri, Chitra’s living room lights up with their beauty. Over the years, “with more time” on her hands, her craft, innovation, imagination and skill have got better. Chitra says it is a divine blessing.

As a young girl she learnt the art of Japanese doll-making in Chennai. Today she continues to make dolls, improving and innovating on them, tweaking and Indianising them to tell the stories from Hindu mythology. This year she has laid out, “in sequence” the stories of Krishna from the Bhagavatham. It is a visual narrative of a unique kind that captures the twist in the tales effortlessly.

The dolls are painted, dressed and shaped into different characters, their expressions true to the story—Krishna’s eyes shine in joyous naughtiness as he plays a prank, the gopis are glowing in a romantic trance, while a hapless Yashoda coped with her son’s mysterious ways. “The expressions in the eyes form on their own, as if some unseen power is helping me paint,” says Chitra modestly.

Chitra uses steel wires, cloth, cotton and glue to make the dolls.

Once the frame is ready, she dresses them according to the mythological characters they depict. So Shiva is blue with a snake around his neck, Murugan acquires a peacock, Narasimham has a lion face, Anjaneya is the monkey God. The women are bejewelled to the hilt, their dresses stitched in beautiful brocades and silks. Chitra carefully coordinates the jewellery with the attire, using attractive colours. Every part of a doll is crafted with great attention to detail. The nails are painted, the eyes are kohled, the hair decorated, rings on the fingers and toes and even the tiny little mole is placed carefully.

Chitra discloses her mode of working. She says that the dolls lie on a work table in her dining room and between kitchen and house work, she keeps a watch on them. Between chores, when ideas strike her, she attends to them one by one, attaching mock mouths, noses, ears, painting and dressing them.

For the scene, ‘Ras Leela’ where the gopis are dancing with Krishna, each imagining to be with her beloved, Chitra bought small plastic Jennifer dolls and worked on each one separately. She denudes the ready made dolls, using their blonde hair for the Narasimham’s mane and such. Chitra procures the materials for her craft locally and is completely preoccupied planning ways and means to make her dolls as lifelike as possible.

The Bhagavatham scenes are depicted chronologically from the birth of Krishna to the death of Kamsa. There are some stand alone tableaux, like the song of Bharatiyar, Theeratha vilayattu pillai’ and in Gajendramoksham, Palazhimadhanam, the story of Prahlad and Narasimham where she has artistically expressed her interpretations.

“I forget myself when I make the dolls. The joy they give the beholders keeps me going,” says Chitra, dressed traditionally in a deep maroon sari and a shining nose stud. Her husband G. Ramanathan, a retired professor of physics at S.H. College, Thevara, has been a constant source of encouragement. As senior citizens, the couple savour every moment of the doll world they have nurtured. Imbued by divinity of the dolls Ramanathan says in good humour, “I have taught physics all my life and science is truth, but now I feel that it is only the half truth. God is the whole truth.” Chitra nods in agreement. For her dolls are divine offerings to God and his avatars.